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To my delight, I discovered that, against all odds, the crown of the Aztec Empire is (apparently) still extant.  Allegedly, the Conquistadors hung onto Montezuma’s original feathered headdress and brought it back to Europe where it found its way into the hands of the Austrian branch of the Hapsburg family who put it in a scary museum somewhere in Vienna. However, as I tried to find out more about the crown of Montezuma, I ended up reading more about the Aztecs.  Now, I always regarded the Aztecs as a death-cult society built on top of a base of cruel slavery and vicious warfare.  The truth is more complicated.  The “empire” was really a grand alliance of three neighboring city-states from the Valley of Mexico. The Triple Alliance (as the Aztecs called themselves) conquered the surrounding tribes and kingdoms through war and political/cultural means, yet whenever this alliance took over a new region they left the nobility and social structures intact and “ruled” through extracting tribute and demanding other cultural concessions.  Their “flower wars” were not traditional wars of conquest familiar to say, the Romans or the French, but highly stylized affairs…however the (pre-ordained) losers were indeed sacrificed to appease the astonishing yet bloodthirsty gods of the Aztec pantheon.

We will come back to all of this later this week.  For right now, let’s get back to the crown of Montezuma II.  This beautiful item is remarkable in many ways, but, um, being “real” isn’t necessarily one of them (speaking of which, the original is pictured at the top of the post , and the other pictures are museum reproductions).  The provenance of this headdress (if it is a headdress) is highly disputed.  Not only does it not match the (questionable) illustrations we have of Aztec headdresses, but also the 16th century records about the piece have some holes .  According to lore the crown was seized during the conquest of Mexico (ca. 1520) and sent back to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and King of Spain.  The piece is then recorded in the collections of Archduke Ferdinand II in Ambras (near Innsbruck Austria) in 1575.  It became an object of fascination in the mid to late 19th century. Since it is made from delicate iridescent feathers (which fade over time) the crown was “restored” in 1878.  the European restorers used kingfisher feathers and restored it as a standard (a sort of flag as opposed to a “Moorish hat” (which is how it was recorded in the Grand Duke’s collection).

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The restored crown is over a meter in height and 1.75 meters across (4 feet by 6 feet).  it is crafted of layers of feathers, which seem to have conferred certain spiritual significance in the afterlife (and in the Aztec court, where special feather workers were kept to work with innumerable caged birds).  The layers of feathers are described in detail on Wikipedia:

“The smallest is made from blue feathers of the Cotinga amabilis (xiuhtōtōtl) with small plates of gold in the shapes of half moons. Behind this is a layer of Roseate spoonbill (tlāuhquechōlli) feathers, then small quetzal feathers, then a layer of white-tipped red-brown feathers of the squirrel cuckoo, Piaya cayana, with three bands of small gold plates, and finally two of 400 closely spaced quetzal tail feathers, some 55 cm (22 in) long.”

To conclude, I have written about a emperor’s crown which is not necessarily a crown for an empire which was not necessarily an empire.   Everything in this post is suspect. Our fundamental view of the Aztecs (who didn’t even call themselves that) seems as questionable as this imperial crown.  Yet, despite these very real questions, the crown of Montezuma today has become the focus of an intense political campaign to return the piece to Mexico.  Austria and Mexico exchange diplomatic statements about it and teams of scientists and ethnologists study the fragile treasure. Whether it actually belonged to Montezuma or not, the piece definitely seems to be an Aztec artifact of enormous significance and equally great beauty.   It is as splendid–or perhaps more splendid– as any of the other crowns I have written about, yet it is sad too, with its bloody history, its ongoing mysteries, and the contemporary conflict which swirls around it. The fact that it is made of fragile feathers of  long gone birds gives it additional beauty and pathos.

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The second Monday of October is celebrated in America as Columbus Day. The holiday commemorates the day when Columbus’ exploratory fleet first spotted land on October 12, 1492.  Before Columbus, many other people had discovered America in one way or another, but after Columbus arrived, everything changed.  People, animals, diseases, ideas, and art all began to rapidly flow back and forth between the hemispheres in a way which had never before happened.  Today’s post, however, is not about the (always-controversial) Columbus–instead it is about the most terrible new export which the Spanish brought to the new world.

The exploration and colonization of the Americas were made easy for Europeans because big parts of the continents were empty.  Early explorers reported fields that were ready for farming, and orchards filled with fruit but no people.  The reason for this emptiness is sad and deeply troubling.  Smallpox came to the Americas in the early 16th century on Spanish ships and rapidly expanded into a vast pandemic which ravaged the population of the new world.  It outpaced the European explorers in conquering the continents: by the time colonists and explorers reached the hinterlands, great swaths of North and South America were uninhabited: the people who had lived there were dead from the highly contagious virus.  Native Americans had not co-evolved with the disease for millenia (like Europeans, Africans, and Asians had) and the people of the first nations died in droves.  Some estimates put Smallpox mortality in indigenous populations at an astonishing 80% to 95%.   Historians estimate that the original population of the Americas was between 50 and 100 million (approximately the same as Europe).  The conquest of America was not by guns or ships or religions, it was by disease.  The great smallpox plague is one of the more important events in history–yet it is has not been a focus of mainstream popular history both because Europeans did not directly witness the worst ravages (except in rare cases) and because there is an existentially terrifying randomness to the mass death of so many people.

In the old world, smallpox was an ancient scourge dating back to prehistory.   Using genetics, scientists have estimated that the virus originated 10,500 years ago and, indeed, 3,000 year old Egyptian mummies have been found bearing evidence of the disease.  During the 17th century, smallpox killed an estimated 400,000 Europeans per year (and left many survivors blind or hideously scarred). The people of the Americas escaped this scourge entirely by crossing a landbridge from Asia before smallpox evolved.   When the Vikings discovered America, they found a resilient culture which easily shrugged off attempts at colonization.  Crucially none of the Norse explorers or colonists brought any terrible illnesses with them.  But what had been fortunate for the first Americans became a terrible weakness, when smallpox did finally arrive with the Spanish.
The scope of the great dying boggles the imagination.  A Spanish priest traveling with Cortes into the dying Aztec empire described the scene writing “As the Indians did not know the remedy of the disease…they died in heaps, like bedbugs. In many places it happened that everyone in a house died and, as it was impossible to bury the great number of dead, they pulled down the houses over them so that their homes become their tombs.”

Of course the Spanish did not know the remedy for the disease either.  It is a historical fluke that the people of the new world died by the millions in the decades after Columbus rather than the other way around (and wouldn’t that have been a twist?).  In fact syphilis was a new world disease unknown in Europe until adventurers brought it across the Atlantic.  The story of the smallpox plague is a dark and terrible one, but it does have a more positive corollary.  In the 16th century, as the conquistadors unwittingly spread pestilence into North and South America, a solution to the terrible plague had already been perfected on the other side of the world in China.  Thanks to Chinese physicians, Turkish diplomacy, an English nobleman, convicts and… milkmaids (and lots of careful work), the horrible scourge has been all but eradicated from Earth, but I will save that brighter story for tomorrow.

Smallpox among the Aztecs

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